It was a long time ago, but I can still picture my grandmothers standing at their stoves, frying potato latkes for Hanukah. The eight-day holiday gave us plenty of opportunity to visit both of them, and while one was a vegetarian and the other made a mean chicken soup, at Hanukah, they had this one sublime dish in common.
If I close my eyes, I can see my father’s mother, Sarah, neat in her apron, her cropped silver hair shining. And my mother’s mother, Fannie, her long brown hair fastened in a bun and covered in the kerchief she always wore when she cooked. I can almost smell the pancakes — potato, onion and egg fried in oil — and taste the first bite, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, the hot, savory, salty pancake a perfect contrast to the applesauce and sour cream that were always served with them. To us, it was heaven on a fork.
As a kid, I had no idea of the struggles that both my immigrant grandmothers had endured on their separate journeys to our holiday tables. I only knew that we were all together, my parents and brother and sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and that soon we would light the Hanukah candles, receive presents, and feast on those delicious latkes.
Latkes (Yiddish for pancakes) have long been central to the Hanukah observance, at least for Jews of Eastern European origin. It wasn’t because of the potatoes, but the oil.
That’s because oil played a critical role in the Hanukah story. The holiday dates to 168 B.C.E., when what is now Israel was controlled by a king who prohibited the practice of Judaism, defiled the main temple in Jerusalem, and killed those who refused to comply. A group of Jews fled the city and launched a rebellion, and after three years of guerilla fighting, they retook Jerusalem and rededicated the temple. Its grand candelabra was supposed to burn continuously, but they found only enough consecrated oil for a single day. According to tradition, it lasted for eight full days, the time it took to procure more oil. Since then, Jews have celebrated the miracle of the oil during Hanukah.
Some Jews, my family included, also celebrate the fact that Hanukah marks a victory for freedom — freedom of religion, freedom to be who you are without fear. For us, that was always the main point.
I didn’t realize it when I was kid, but each of my grandmothers lived a victory for freedom every single day. Both had been born in Eastern Europe, where they had endured poverty and anti-Semitism. I don’t know all the details — I heard their stories in snatches here and there — but I’m pretty sure Fannie lived through a pogrom. That’s a violent riot directed against a minority group; pogroms were just part of life for Eastern Europe Jews.
Both my grandmothers sailed for America as young teens to seek a better life. Like so many immigrants, they could only afford berths far below deck in steerage class — I can imagine their relief at the sight of the Statue of Liberty when they landed at Ellis Island. Both went to work in factories, married, raised children, and cooked and baked and scrubbed their modest homes until they sparkled.
Late in her life, Sarah told me about the time they passed a microphone around at her senior center. My shy little grandma stood up and said, “America is a great country. God bless America.” When she told me about it, l thought it was kind of hokey, but after I thought some more about where she had come from and what she had lived through, I understood what she meant.
Like millions of immigrants, my grandmothers came to America in search of a better life. For Jews, a better life meant more than a good job; it meant the very same thing we celebrate at Hanukah: the freedom to worship as you please and be who you are, without fear.
Today, I’m thinking about people in various corners of the world who wake up in fear every morning because of who they are, who nurture hope for a better life in a land like ours. And now there are even more people, right here in our own country, who wake up in fear. We’re hardly perfect, but we’re a nation that has always celebrated freedom. We’ve made progress over the years in expanding the idea of freedom to encompass people of many races, backgrounds and lifestyles. I hope we never forget this heritage.
When my family gathers around the holiday table this year to retell the story of Hanukah and eat potato latkes, I’m going to tell the kids about their great-grandmothers, and celebrate their victory for freedom. And we’ll light the candles, and hope for freedom for all.